High Alcohol is a Wine Fault... Not a Badge of Honor

By Matthew Citriglia, MS on May 14, 2006

Several weeks ago I was in a restaurant with a group of friends and the sommelier on the floor recognized me and was excited that I was going to order wine from his list. He was a nice guy; relatively young, energetic and excited to talk about all the obscure producers on the list and his exceptional selection of tiny boutique Pinot producers. His excitement was infectious so I told him to bring out several bottles of his favorite Pinots.

The Som began the dinner with Hope and Grace, which he followed up with Siduri “Pisoni” Pinot. With each presentation he excitedly told me how lucky he was to get a few bottles and the impressive score they received. These first two wines were thick, heady and Zinfandel like. Seeing where this was headed, I asked the Som to bring back the wine list. He immediately sensed there was something wrong, but I tried to reassure him the wines were fine.

Although the Som’s instincts were correct, he unfortunately misinterpreted my comments. Determined to impress me, he came back with a bottle of Marcassin “Marcassin Vineyard” Pinot. He poured me a taste and as he dove into his recitation of the glowing reviews the wine had received, I spit the wine out into my water glass. The horrified Som began to stutter, "Uh... is it corked?" I told him that the wine is fine, but that it was an abomination of Pinot Noir. The Som, thoroughly confused now, could not understand how the wine could be so bad. It had glowing reviews and an impressive 15.2% alcohol.

So we began to have a conversation about varietal correctness, regional identity and the damage Enologix, celebrity winemakers, reverse osmosis and American wine critics were having on wine identity. As well, I explained that he should not so easily surrender his credibility to third party endorsements. He should be proud of his selections and put wines on the list that fit the personality and style of the restaurant, regardless of what so-and-so may say about his wine selection.

A few weeks later, I felt recovered from the Pinot poisoning and thought I might try the grape again. Hesitantly, I pulled a bottle of 1990 Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir from my cellar. I was uncertain for two reasons, first it said Robert Mondavi on the label and second I had purchased it many years ago when I was far less knowledgeable about wine.

When I opened the bottle I was reminded of two things: first, Robert Mondavi did make great wine at one time and second, sometimes the less you know about a wine the better your purchase. This wine was freaking awesome! Fragrant, layered and light but with focused flavors that unfolded in the mouth. Then I looked at the alcohol – 13.0%! How is it that this 13% Mondavi Pinot had more depth and layers of flavor than the power house wines of Hope and Grace at 14.2%, Siduri at 14.8% or Marcassin at 15.2%?

So a few questions arose in my mind: When did high alcohol and dense color become the hallmarks of great wine? When did the sappy cloying texture of a de-alcoholized wine become the hallmark of great mouth feel? It also occurred to me that even I had been taken in on today’s pendulum swing of phenolic ripeness.

Today’s high alcohol wines have been brought about with the winemaker’s focus on phenolic ripeness. Phenolics are a group of compounds that contribute color pigmentation (anthocyans), flavor/aroma compounds and tannin. They develop in the skin, seeds, stems and pulp of the grape, but it is within the skin and seeds where phenolic ripeness is most important. During the 90s, researchers discovered that phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness don’t happen simultaneously. A winemaker could harvest grapes that showed sugar maturity but still had green unripe flavors, which is a phenomenon more likely to happen in warmer growing regions rather than cooler ones.

But now winemakers are picking by phenolics alone, ignoring sugar and acid levels. In fact, the words “higher quality fruit” are buzz words for phenolicly-ripe grapes, regardless of sugar, acid or pH. Just because the grapes are phenolicly-ripe does not mean the grapes are of higher quality. Low acid and high sugar levels provide a breading ground for VA (volatile acidity) and bacteria, not to mention excessive alcohol and sappy textures.

Winemakers like to say that they grow the wine in the vineyard. Well, if this is true then they should grow grapes that create a balanced wine. Ah… but that is the rub! Growing balanced grapes where phenolics and grape sugars mature in chorus with the proper proportion of natural acidity is a very difficult and detailed process. It is far easier to target a phenolic number and then mold the juice in the winery than to address Mother Nature’s variables every year. Call me crazy, but the grape grower who harvests balanced grapes should be the celebrity, not the winemaker who uses technology to manipulate and sculpt a wine.

Invasive technology has made it easy to fix problems with over-ripeness, so winemakers no longer have to be concerned with excessive sugar or low acid. Today, I hear many winemakers talk about how they have to make a choice between sugar ripeness and phenolic ripeness. Well, if winemakers have to make this choice then maybe they planted the wrong grapes to the vineyard site, or just maybe, that particular vineyard site should not be a vineyard!

The obsession with grape ripeness has lead to an obsession with technology. Celebrity winemakers and wine critics talk ad nauseam about how making great wine begins in the vineyard and how they use organic, sustainable or biodynamic farming methods to put them more in touch with the vines. They state that these farming methods produce “higher quality fruit.” Well if the fruit is “high quality,” why do they have to butcher it in the winery with invasive winemaking techniques, or hire companies like Enologix or Vinovation to help manipulate, adjust and sculpt the juice into a wine style that will appease the critic? They have gone from growing something entirely natural to producing something wholly unnatural! It would appear that the modest term Goût de Terroir (Taste of the Earth / Taste of the Vineyard) has been officially replaced by a more brazen term Goût de Vin Fabricant (Taste of the Winemaker).

To give you an example of how invasive some of today’s technology is, let’s focus on reverse osmosis, which is a filtration system that is roughly 10,000 times tighter than sterile filtration. This process breaks the wine down into two parts: the permeate (the part that the winemaker wishes to filter out, such as alcohol, water and/or volatile acidity) and the retentate (everything else such as polyphenols, flavor compounds and tannins). When this process is used to reduce alcohol, the permeate must be distilled to remove the alcohol and then the reconstituted vapor is added back into the retentate and the wine is reconstituted.

And this is just one technique! Other invasive and unnatural winemaking techniques being used today include the spinning cone, cross-flow filtration, water evaporators, micro-oxygenation, thin film evaporation, tannin filtration and roto-fermenters.

These technologies are useful for making quality wine for everyday consumption. Large mass-market brands have employed some of these technologies to make consistent tasting products that will appeal to the masses at the lowest possible price point. But these technologies have no place in a winery trying to make a distinctive wine that speaks of its grape and growing region. The wine media confuses the situation further by vehemently denouncing high-tech winemaking and then promptly handing out the highest scores to wines produced by the methods they so fervently oppose!

Unlike wine critics, consumers don’t have the luxury of a 5 minute interlude with their wine. Consumers must interact with the entire bottle of wine, and that interaction usually includes food, which creates yet another problem. For every degree of alcohol over 14%, there is an exponential drop in the wine’s ability to work with food as it becomes heavy and ego-centric. These wines care nothing for the interaction with food and constantly scream, “Look at me! I am beautiful and you will adore me!” But in a blind tasting, these wines quickly seduce the critic into giving it a high score.

Retailers and restaurateurs, you can build credibility by protecting your customers from these unnatural and overly alcoholic wines. Let consumers know that excessive alcohol in a wine is a mistake that is not recognized by most wine critics. This fault is the result of poor vineyard management and the winemaker’s disregard of varietal character and vineyard identity. When you inform consumers about the deviant winemaking methods employed to manufacture these wines, they will reject the scores and begin to accept your guidance!